Complex relationships, representation and dramatic character arcs are par for the course in today’s newest shows. Things like popularity, a younger target demographic and good intentions should not shield these stories from criticism.
Going forward, it is hard to say how far creators will go, but one thing is certain: they should be even more careful with the way they tell their stories to impressionable audiences. Problematic narratives about LGBTQ representation and mental health can have a lasting impact on young audiences.
One recent show, "The Dragon Prince," squanders opportunities to properly explore diversity and representation, and these flaws are overlooked by entertainment outlets like CBR and Polygon. They claim to spurn “offensive tokening,” yet clamber to perpetuate and praise it. They applaud the show for putting underrepresented characters — especially LGBTQ — in the spotlight, but the show does the complete opposite of this.
It parades gay side characters in front of us, then removes them or distances them from narrative relevance. That is the definition of tokenization and queerbaiting, and it is an example of doing the bare minimum to pander to those seeking representation. Not only is this disrespectful and offensive, but the show will also be promoted to younger audiences who don’t know any better.
All cultures in "The Dragon Prince" are tolerant and accepting even though the main conflict is rooted in racism, or the show’s analogy for it. Elves and humans are “racist,” but God forbid they be homophobic. The world-building and social politics subsequently become incongruent. The humans are so open-minded that they elevate lesbians as their queens and people of color to positions of power, but they still govern through monarchical dictatorships and are racially prejudiced against the diverse elves, who are just as socially open-minded with the exception of their attitudes toward humans.
Although this show is set in a fictional, fantastical world, the presence of magic doesn’t change human nature and society. Gay rights in "The Dragon Prince" happen to be self-evident, although it took centuries of real-life struggle and advocacy for societies to progress beyond stereotypes and stigma. The show’s depiction of widespread LGBTQ acceptance dismisses the work it took to further LGBTQ equality, favoring a convenient narrative that can easily win the adulation of entertainment media.
Another show that gets overlooked for problematic undertones is "The Legend of Korra." The flagship relationship of this show was trotted out as groundbreaking LGBTQ representation in mainstream media for kids at the time, yet interactions between the couple are scarce. Some moments even demean their value as female characters. These characters only start substantially bonding with each other in the third season, and it’s only by disparaging the ex-boyfriend they shared. This depiction of how women supposedly act and find camaraderie is insulting to women.
In the fourth season, when the romantic relationship is supposed to materialize, there are far less interactions between the pair. "The Legend of Korra" assumes our imagination will fill in the gaps, and the show can bask in the accolades of being inclusive without working to develop the relationship.
"Steven Universe" has gained popularity for being an affirmative, positive show aimed toward children that explores themes such as family, identity and mental health. The latter is where the show lets its viewership down. The show exaggerates the behavior of someone suffering from PTSD and depression, portraying him as insensitive and even violent.
By representing these negative feelings through downright silly imagery, "Steven Universe" creates tonal dissonance, which could inadvertently be misconstrued as disrespectful. It also attaches a stigma to those suffering from mental health issues. This characterization betrays the emotional journey the protagonist has been through and what that journey stands for: kindness and optimism in the face of adversity. The main character disregards the emotional turmoil of his friends and derides them at times, which the show excuses as teen angst.
When the narrative is interrupted with poorly timed comedy, it comes across as jarring and exploitative. The writers seem to forget the emotional arcs certain characters go through, which include suffering through abuse and toxic relationships. Naturally, as in real life, these events would inform the behavior and perspective of the characters. The show forgets or ignores these, however, in favor of a visual gag or to advance Steven’s character at the expense of his fellow cast members.
We should not reward shallow effort just because children’s shows champion a seemingly progressive message or fulfill a diversity quota. Neglecting to properly develop relationships, characters and stories only undermines representation. "The Dragon Prince," "The Legend of Korra" and "Steven Universe" are not the first shows to attempt making progressive themes palatable to younger audiences, nor will they be the last. Today, with easy access to the internet at children’s fingertips, it’s important more than ever for shows to be respectful, honest and diligent in how they convey their themes to avoid harmful messaging.